Disappointment with God: When God Doesn’t Do What You Expect

Black and white sketch of Elijah

Have you ever had circumstances disappoint you?

It’s happened to all of us. Things don’t turn out the way we expect.

Perhaps you’re pretty sharp and you get top grades in school. Your classmates and teachers tell you that you might be able to enter a top university. So you start to dream about that university experience. But one day you got a letter from that university. You have been rejected—and you are devastated. This didn’t turn out the way you expected.

Perhaps you work really hard at your job. The executives are impressed with you, and your colleagues tell you that you deserve to get that promotion. So you start dreaming about that impressive title and the corner office. But one day you find out that they gave that job to someone else. You’re disappointed, even angry. This didn’t turn out the way you expected.

And if you’re anything like me, your disappointment leads to very emotional prayers.

God, what are you doing?

I’m so hurt; I’m so disappointed, Lord.

Don’t you love me?

God, why are you doing this to me?

When things don’t go the way we expect, what’s happening? When we are disappointed with God, what is God doing?

Elijah experienced disappointment with God. Let’s see what he experienced, why he was disappointed, and what God was doing.

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The dramatic scene at Mt. Carmel

Elijah had a difficult job. As a prophet, he had to speak for God during a time when the people were turning away from him. He spoke for Yahweh to King Ahab, who had influenced the people to worship the false god Baal.

In 1 Kings, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, Solomon had prayed to the Lord:

Every prayer or petition
that any person or that all your people Israel may have—
they each know their own affliction—
as they spread out their hands toward this temple,
may you hear in heaven, your dwelling place,
and may you forgive, act, and give to everyone
according to all their ways, since you know each heart,
for you alone know every human heart. (1 Kgs 8:38–39 CSB)

The people’s idolatry had led to the heavens being shut up. Just like Solomon had said, their sin brings about a long drought. The crops and animals were dying. The people were suffering.

As the account in 1 Kings 18 describes, Elijah faces King Ahab and sets up a competition between the true God and the false. Atop Mt. Carmel, Elijah challenges the people to choose which god to worship: Yahweh, the God of their forefathers; or Baal, the false god of King Ahab.

Two altars are set up, along with wood for kindling and a bull for sacrifice. There stands Elijah the prophet of Yahweh, with 450 prophets of Baal standing opposite him.

Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal not to light the fire on their altar but to call on their god to do so. Whichever god answers with fire from heaven will prove to be the true God.

Baal’s prophets start crying out to Baal to send fire. They call to their god, dance around, and even injure themselves with swords, all to induce Baal to act. But nothing happens.

Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. (1 Kgs 18:29 NIV)

Now Elijah builds the altar to Yahweh. Remarkably, he orders his servants to pour four large jars of water on it, which they do three times—twelve large jars of water! Remember: it hadn’t rained in several years. Water was like gold; it was so valuable.

Elijah speaks to Yahweh once, and immediately fire comes down from the sky. The altar and the bull were soaking wet just moments ago, but suddenly they are flaming with fire. Yahweh shows that he is the real God and the only one to worship.

The people catch the 450 false prophets of Baal and Elijah kills them all. After that, God opens up the sky—and it begins to rain heavily. He has demonstrated that he is the real God.

Elijah’s disappointment

The people see God rain fire down from heaven. The prophets of Baal are dead. It’s finally raining after several years of desperate drought. If I were Elijah, I would be happy that my hard work is now being rewarded. I would expect everyone in the nation to turn back to God.

But the nation of Israel did not turn back to God. Elijah looked out and saw, instead of a repentant nation, a vengeful queen whose very name has become a proverb: Jezebel. And she wanted to kill him.

And Elijah was devastated; he considered himself a failure. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kgs 19:4 NIV). This hasn’t turned out the way Elijah expected. He turns tail and runs.

Yahweh does not rebuke Elijah for fleeing. Instead, he provides for his needs. Twice God provides the runaway prophet with a hot meal and drink. Finally, after Elijah runs to Mt. Horeb, the Lord has a conversation with him. Elijah is convinced that he is the only one faithful to Yahweh, and that his work has been in vain.

The Lord responds with a huge wind—that the Lord was not in. Then a huge earthquake—that the Lord was not in. God then, famously, speaks to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”

But Elijah is not impressed; he is intent on woe-is-me-ing:

I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. (1 Kgs 19:14 NIV)

All this didn’t turn out the way Elijah expected.

God responds to Elijah’s complaint

God at first does not seem to register Elijah’s complaint. He simply instructs Elijah to go back to his place of ministry with plans to anoint two new leaders to office: Hazael and Jehu. And Elijah is also to appoint Elisha to be the next prophet.

But God’s still, small voice is not without a gentle but powerful reply to Elijah’s disappointment:

Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him. (1 Kgs 19:18 NIV)

Elijah finds out that he is not the only one left. Yahweh has a plan, and he is going to be using people like the next kings, Hazael and Jehu, and the next prophet, Elisha, to continue his work. God has not failed. He simply has a different plan than his fickle and finite prophet.

When Elijah was disappointed with God, he learned that God had a different plan than his.

When Elijah was upset that God didn’t do what he expected, God told him that he didn’t always work the way the prophet expected.

Elijah learned that God was much bigger than his expectations.

God uses the new prophet Elisha and the remaining seven-thousand people who are faithful to him. God has a plan to bring people’s hearts to him. As we find out as the story continues, that plan is much bigger than Elijah had expected. In fact, it’s much bigger than the nation of Israel itself. Yahweh has a plan to offer salvation to the whole world.

Elijah learns that God can work both in big impressive ways (like fire falling from heaven) and small, quiet ways (like the still, small voice). When Elijah is disappointed with God, he learns that God has a different plan.

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What happens when you and I are disappointed with God?

Are you disappointed with God? Did you expect God to do something a certain way, and he did not? Are you disappointed with God?

Have you run away from God because of your disappointment?

Perhaps, like he spoke to Elijah, God might speak to you, saying, “What are you doing here? Why are you so far away from being faithful to me? What are you doing in this place?”

When you’re upset at God, learn from Elijah: God doesn’t always work the way we expect. Elijah expected God to be earthquake, wind, and fire. He expected God to turn the people back to him instantaneously. But God didn’t work the way Elijah thought he would. God can also work through a whisper; he can (and does) use other things to bring people back to him: seven-thousand faithful people, a new prophet—and ultimately, a baby born in Bethlehem.

It’s difficult. We lose loved ones after praying that God would heal them. We deal with divorce or financial loss after expecting God to give us a fairy tale life. Sometimes we are disappointed, maybe even angry with God. Maybe even disappointed enough to want to die.

Elijah was disappointed in God because he thought God was limited. When we see that God is greater than us and has his own plan, we stop running away from God when we’re disappointed.

God doesn’t work the way we expect. We can’t make plans for God and expect him to follow us. He is not, in the words of C. S. Lewis, a tame lion. He isn’t indeed safe: he can send earthquake, wind, and fire. But he’s good, a truth he demonstrated once for all on the cross as Jesus Christ. When we face disappointment with God, God has a different and better plan for us.

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Written by
Daniel K. Eng

Daniel K. Eng is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary. He is a husband and dad to three precious daughters. They live in Portland, Oregon.

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Written by Daniel K. Eng
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